Is there a Connection – Hurricanes and Climate Change?


Satellite photo of Hurricane Sandy on October 29th

Satellite photo of Hurricane Sandy on October 29th | NASA GOES project

As reports of the devastation from Sandy the “Frankenstorm” continue to come in, and the staggeringly expensive recovery gets under way, I find myself thinking about hurricanes and climate change.

While we can’t connect one specific event like Hurricane Sandy to climate change, we can connect the dots to climate change by the increased number and severity of hurricanes and other storms.  Climate change may not cause any single storm, but it creates the conditions that fuel more frequent and intense storms.

The increase in carbon dioxide and their “greenhouse” effect has caused the earth’s environment to become much warmer and, in some parts of the world, much wetter.  This increase in both sea and surface temperature and moisture is the perfect storm for hurricanes – storms like Sandy and Irene thrive off of these conditions and are able to head further north than previous storms, threatening communities with extreme rain and storm events.  As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, climate change is causing our climate to be on “steroids,” unleashing large storms like last year’s Irene, and this year’s Sandy.

So – what can we do? In immediate terms, we can take action to ensure our own safety as “monster storms” like Sandy become ever more common.  Take action to protect your family by preparing an emergency kit and identifying a safe place to go if evacuation becomes necessary. And be prepared to follow the instructions of local and state officials in the event of a weather emergency. 

As the aftermath of Sandy has shown, ignoring safety warnings and evacuation orders can have grave consequences for yourself and others. Cities and states can work to develop and expand their emergency plans by including the uncertainty factor of climate change including storm surges, increased coastal and riverine flooding and evacuation plans.

However, looking long term, cities and states need to do more than just develop and expand emergency plans.  We are moving into a world where 100-year floods are now 5-year floods. Rethinking how we build our infrastructure is critical.

We need to modernize building codes; implement setbacks; develop green infrastructure at meaningful scales, and take better advantage of natural systems like barrier islands and wetlands, to better manage stormwater and storm surge; and ensure that our power and transportation systems are able to withstand the new normal. Investing in these vital infrastructure upgrades now will be expensive, but that expense will be a fraction of the cost of recovery from disasters like Katrina, Irene, and Sandy.